Law allowing law enforcement fund gets mixed reviews

Sunday, January 2, 2005

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Counties across Missouri have yet to fully embrace a new law that took effect in August allowing them to create funds to help reimburse law enforcement for the costs of battling crime.

Once a county creates a fund, judges can require offenders to pay up to $300 into the fund as part of their probation or suspended sentence. People convicted of minor crimes -- misdemeanors with sentences of not more than 15 days in jail or a $300 fine -- and traffic offenses cannot be made to pay into the fund.

The money can be used to pay for everything from drug investigations to police equipment to the work of a county prosecutor.

St. Louis County, the state's largest, has created a fund, as has Cape Girardeau County in Southeast Missouri. But Boone County in central Missouri decided against it, and others, including Adair, Greene and Nodaway counties, still are considering the idea.

Paying restitution

Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan said the county has collected roughly $3,000 per month into the fund since August.

He said the county has long had a Crime Reduction Fund. At one time, the courts contributed to that, but in the last several years it has been supplemented by a telephone contract with the jail and by donations.

The new fund, called the County Law Enforcement Restitution Fund, is a separate account. Jordan said none of the money has been spent yet, but a panel has been organized and will meet some time in January to discuss how the fund money should be spent.

Boone County Commissioner Skip Elkin said his county decided against creating the fund because commissioners felt court-imposed penalties should go first to crime victims and schools, rather than law enforcement.

Lawmakers passed a similar bill in 2003 allowing judges to order payment into a "county crime reduction fund," but Gov. Bob Holden vetoed it, claiming it was unconstitutional because court fines are supposed to go to schools.

The new law instead calls the court-ordered payment "restitution" to avoid any interpretation that it is a fine.

Some counties had such funds years ago but were advised to give up the practice because there was no specific state law authorizing it, legislators said.

Mick Covington, interim director of the Missouri Sheriffs' Association, which supported the law, said he hasn't tracked how many counties have created funds, but said he knows of some all over the state that have. He also said he expects more counties to consider the issue in the coming months, after newly elected officials take office.

'Means of accountability'

"We think it is a means of accountability for the offender," he said. "By engaging the offenders in the financial task that comes with [investigations and prosecutions], it frees up monies that can better be used elsewhere, in areas providing services to citizens that abide by the law."

Rep. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, pushed for the legislation and said many counties in his area have created a fund, and that some judges have started ordering defendants to pay into it.

"Most are finding it's working well. They're just getting started," he said.

He said it's too early to know how much money can be collected, but estimated that counties in southeast Missouri could collect between $30,000 to $50,000 a year.

"It's not going to be a huge money generator," he said, but "every little bit helps."

Staff writer Bob Miller contributed to this report.

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